Dave Gregory's hole-in-the-wall gang
The first Australian tour of England. Anthony Meredith explores the archives of 1878...
His sun-scorched team could have passed for Ali Baba's 40 Thieves, except they were only 12. Indeed, after W.G. Grace descended from Olympus and plucked Billy Midwinter from their midst to play for Gloucestershire, they were only 11. But they had more grit than Ali Baba's men. These tough pioneers stare from photographs with all the insouciance of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the team's extreme youth belied by the profusion of fashionable whiskers. These are clearly no modem tourists, hiding in hotels, homesick for their girlfriends or agents.
Dave Gregory's hole-in-the-wall-gang had come to do a job; they meant business. They had landed at Liverpool. There they were met by their manager, Jack Conway, and English representative, Jim Lillywhite. Thirty-seven fixtures had been arranged, not all of them first-class. Half, for example, were against local teams of 18 and they even played 22 at Crewe and Buxton. Conway and Lillywhite were old friends. They had played reverse roles in Australia a year earlier when Lillywhite had brought across the fourth English team; together they had organised the first two Tests in cricket history. A former fast bowler with Victoria and, like Lillywhite, editor of his own cricket annual, Conway admired the Sussex man for his business instincts. He cherished the story of Jim Lillywhite walking the streets of Chichester on his return from Australia, his pockets bulging with unbanked notes.
In the unstructured situation of the day the Marylebone and Melbourne clubs had an understandable suspicion of such entrepreneurs, challenging the establishment. Lillywhite, as secretary of the United South of England XI, one of the last itinerant celebrity teams, must already have displeased those who sought to promote the burgeoning county system, whilst his all-professional tour to Australia was sandwiched between two amateur forays featuring Lord Harris. Cricket was in the throes of a class struggle. The Australians, by declaring themselves amateurs, pleased neither faction. The English professionals were jealously scornful, whilst the upper-class amateurs took umbrage that a motley band of bank-clerks, miners and junior civil servants could usurp the name of gentleman. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that Gregory's men were denied the chance of meeting a representative English side. It may be instructive too that they did not play Harris's Kent. Their anomalous position may well have accounted for the very small reception which greeted them at Liverpool.
Nothing daunted, they took a train to Nottingham. Here their curiosity value captured public imagination. `There must have existed many Englishmen,' wrote Benny Green in his Wisden Anthology, `who firmly believed that the Australians, descendants of Bill Sikes, were accustomed to whiling away the long Pacific summers by slaughtering, dismembering and digesting each other.' The popular English image of an Australian, noted Green, may not have been Spofforth, the demon bowler, but Magwitch in Great Expectations.
Their arrival at Nottingham was wonderfully theatrical: `As their carriages entered the station,' noted the Nottingham Daily Express, `the Saxe-Tuba band struck up Auld Lang Syne, the strains of which were at first scarcely to be distinguished on account of the cheering.' The visitors were understandably bemused. An omnibus with four greys awaited them outside. The crowd tried to mob them as they went to take their seats, but they raced off, the Saxe-tuba band marching in front, `playing inspiriting airs'. Spectators lined the pavements, staring in awe. As the Australians dismounted in the yard of the Maypole Hotel, new crowds cheered and the band struck up the national anthem. 'In response to its familiar strains every member of the XI uncovered loyally as he passed through the yard to take up his quarters.'
After a few days of practice at Trent Bridge, marred by constant rain, the match began in foul weather. The river was unusually high, the wind bitter and the skies leaden. A Roman augur might well have interpreted such omens as trouble brewing for English cricket! There were already 2,000 enthusiasts sheltering in the ground at noon, with many more passing through the turnstiles.
When several hardy players came out to practise, the Australians were instantly recognisable, `wearing helmet-shaped headgear, white with dark blue stripes, the handkerchiefs round their waists being similar'. The groundsman then selected and marked a wicket, but further rain delayed the start to nearly I pm. At last, in conditions totally unfit for play, the Bannerman brothers opened the Australian innings.
Such were the opening scenes of the Australians' first match in England. They had been at sea for a month and were playing in conditions completely alien to them. In the end these factors told and they were beaten by the strong Notts team. But there were compensations. They had attracted a record Trent Bridge crowd (of 10,000) on the second day. They had beaten Notts in a four-a-side crowd-pleaser on the third day. They had carried off 80 per cent of the considerable takings and they had been entertained to a public banquet at the George Hotel. Moreover, they did not have long to wait for their first triumph.
Their next stop was the Horseshoe Hotel, Tottenham Court Road, for a fixture with MCC at Lord's. The indefatigable Lillywhite meanwhile had taken Charles Bannerman and Midwinter off to Dublin to play for his United South of England XI. They returned to take part in one of the most famous games in cricket history.
There was a crowd of only 1,000 as the match began. `The Australians are evidently impressed by the importance of punctuality,' commented The Sportsman quaintly, `and as their captain had lost the toss at 12 o'clock they emerged from the pavilion.' Grace and Hornby opened for MCC, Frank Allan bowled the first over from the Nursery End. Allan was a remarkable, medium-paced left-armer, who not only spun the ball but made it move in the air. `Allan's first ball was a bad one, and Mr Grace sent it sharply to square leg, four being run for the hit. The great man was, however, settled the next ball, being caught at short-leg by Midwinter.' It was the start of a collapse which saw MCC out for just 33. The Australians were themselves bowled out for 41 before 4pm. By this time word had spread around London and the crowd had trebled. In MCC's second innings Grace was bowled by Spofforth for 0 and the team scored only 19. By 5.45pm the Australians had made the 12 needed to win by nine wickets. The greatest damage was done by Spofforth. `He takes a long run when he delivers,' noted an observer, `works considerably over his delivery, and sends the ball in at a rare pace.' His match figures were 10 for 20.
This remarkable match, over in less than a day, meant that never again would an Australian team be taken lightly in England. English cricket had suffered a disaster on the scale of the Battle of Cannae. Hannibal was at the gates of Lord's. A new era had begun.